Laughing All The Way To The Top: Humor Works for You In Your Career Growth

Humor at work is a good thing, as long as you never make jokes at anyone's expense.

Humor at work is a good thing, as long as you never make jokes at anyone's expense.

This will make you laugh: If you are seen as genuinely funny at work, you could be more successful. Jokes can speed up your career growth.

This may make you weep: If you blow it with disrespectful jokes and you look like a buffoon, your career growth could be stalled.

In a new research study, “Risky Business: When Humor Increases and Decreases Status,” authors  Maurice Schweitzer, Wharton professor of operations, information and decisions; doctoral candidate Brad Bitterly, and Alison Wood Brooks, a Harvard University assistant professor, found that “the successful use of humor signals confidence and competence, which in turn increases the joke teller’s status.

If you are seen as genuinely funny at work, you could be more successful. #taketheleadwomen

“But what can backfire is the use of inappropriate jokes or becoming the ‘class clown.’ Although signaling confidence typically increases status, telling inappropriate jokes signals low competence and the combined effect of high confidence and low competence harms status,” according to Knowledge@Wharton.

According to Schweitzer, while everyone loves a good joke, “sometimes humor can fail because it’s inappropriate, because it’s just not very funny or because we overdo it. In those cases, we signal low competence and that harms our status. And in some cases we’ve seen people get fired because of it.”

So absolutely no jokes at anyone’s expense, no sexist, racist, cruel, crude or inappropriate comments or attempts to be funny or outrageous.  Many workplaces have codes of conduct. Say something insulting to someone, even if you think it is a joke, and you could be out the door. And your career growth is over.

Bitterly, an author of the study said, “One of the conclusions that I found particularly surprising was in our second study we found that someone who effectively used humor, they were not only perceived to be more confident, competent and higher in status, they were even more likely to be elected as a group leader for a subsequent task. So here we see humor not only influencing perceptions of one another, but even influencing behavior.”

According to Christina Pazzanese in the Harvard Gazette, “If you are brave enough to tell the joke that you want to tell, whether it succeeds or not, people ascribe confidence to you because they see you as efficacious” for taking such a risk with all the ways a joke can potentially fail, said Alison Wood Brooks, assistant professor at Harvard Business School and the paper’s co-author. “To tell a successful joke does, in fact, take quite a lot of competence and not just general intelligence, but emotional intelligence, to figure out all those variables.”

Pazzanese writes, “What could be funny in an industry like the restaurant business might not get a laugh with dentists; within a company, the folks in accounting might find something hilarious that goes right by the human resources department; and what amuses an executive assistant may not do much for the boss. Cultural, linguistic, and socioeconomic differences also affect what is perceived as funny.”

In writing about the research in Men’s Fitness, Erin Alexander concludes, “Somewhat ironically, the takeaway from the research is that humor should be taken seriously as a tool to help navigate social interactions and establish yourself within a professional hierarchy. So the next time you’re in a meeting with your boss, consider working in a bit of humor or a well-timed joke, and you just might just set yourself up for a promotion.

While many say there is a gender difference in humor, most will agree there is also a gender difference in opportunities for comedy. In order to improve and to practice comedic skills, in Chicago, DePaul University student Arielle Toub created DePaul Women’s Improv Troupe.

Most will agree there is a gender difference in opportunities for comedy. #taketheleadwomen

According to DePaulia, “With 30 members, the all-female comedy troupe provides women comics a place to experiment jokes and sketches with one another — a place where they feel don’t have to be constricted or held back with their ideas.”

You may want to borrow from their playbook and perhaps take a comedy class or bounce off some jokes with your friends before you ever try to crack a joke before the annual meeting.

New research from Thomas E. Ford, Professor of Social Psychology at Western Carolina University on humor that puts down others for race, gender, class or whatever, can not only be harmful to you, but harmful to others. Being perceived as someone who expresses hurtful jokes can hamper your career growth.

“By disguising expressions of prejudice in a cloak of fun and frivolity, disparagement humor,  appears harmless and trivial,” Ford writes in The Conversation. However, a large and growing body of psychology research suggests just the opposite – that disparagement humor can foster discrimination against targeted groups.”

Not only are these jokes not funny, but they influence real life harmful behaviors, according to Ford.

“For instance, in studies, men higher in hostile sexism – antagonism against women – reported greater tolerance of gender harassment in the workplace upon exposure to sexist versus neutral (nonsexist) jokes. Men higher in hostile sexism also recommended greater funding cuts to a women’s organization at their university after watching sexist versus neutral comedy skits. Even more disturbing, other researchers found that men higher in hostile sexism expressed greater willingness to rape a woman upon exposure to sexist versus nonsexist humor.”

The recent dismissals of lewd language connected to the presidential campaign highlight the need to call out any harmful language, even when those who are saying it insist it is funny and harmless. So here are a few ground rules on how to use humor in a way at work that will promote a hearty laugh and possibly a perception of you as a confident leader.

  1. Make smart jokes that ridicule no one and are not at anyone’s expense. Comment on popular culture—songs, movies, new books, sports.

  2. Use puns and word play.

  3. Injuries, crime and death are not funny.

  4. Use the news and current events to say what surprised you.

  5. Tell stories about your pets or your children and relatives that are genuinely funny.

  6. Stay away from politics completely.

  7. Keep it clean, never say anything lewd or sexual. Only Amy Schumer can get away with this on stage or in movies.

  8. Never make a joke about gender, race, ethnicity, disability, orientation or any personal attribute of anyone, including a celebrity or public figure and especially no one at work or a client or a colleague.

  9. You can repeat what happens in real life that is funny; something you saw on the way to work or the waiter at lunch misheard your order and brought you something odd.

  10. Practice observational humor. Look for the specific details in an everyday situation that could be funny.

According to WikiHow, you can easily learn how to be funny.

“Get your hands on anything and everything that is funny, and consume it like your mom told you not to. Chemists become chemists by reading and practicing chemistry; sports writers become sports writers by reading and writing about sports; you’re going to become a funnier person by reading and practicing jokes.”

More inspiration and advice is here:

  • Read works by people like James Thurber, P.G. Wodehouse, Stephen Fry, Kaz Cooke, Sarah Silverman, Woody Allen, Bill Bryson, Bill Watterson, Douglas Adams, etc. (Don’t forget children’s books by good authors; they can be a terrific source for good humor!)

  • Read joke books. It won’t hurt to have a few good jokes memorized. Hopefully, reading good jokes might inspire you to start making up your own jokes and witticisms. When reading them, try to pick apart the elements that make them good jokes. Equally, try to work out why some jokes do not work. Just because you wrote it doesn’t mean that it’s good; it can be hard to stare at our own work objectively, so get feedback from someone who doesn’t know you well (that way they won’t sugarcoat the news, whatever it is).”

At work, make sure that your humor is uplifting and not obnoxious. #taketheleadwomen

Try to smile or laugh at least part of every day. If it’s at work, make sure that your humor is uplifting and not obnoxious. Everyone needs a good laugh. And if your identity as a genuinely funny person augments your career growth, you can enjoy the last laugh.

About the Author

Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. @micheleweldon